Jan 24, 2019
Star Trek: Discovery “The Brightest Star”
It’s time for another installment of Short Treks, AKA the mini-episodes of Star Trek: Discovery being released monthly in the lead-up to January’s season premiere. And unlike the previous two Short Treks, “Runaway” and “Calypso”, the synopsis for “The Brightest Star” initially had me mildly curious, in that in promised to deliver backstory on Lt. Saru, the Kelpien who serves as first officer on Discovery. Early in the first season, Saru made lots of enigmatic statements about the nature of his race, and how they were raised to be “prey” and can therefore sense the “coming of death”, so this Short Trek seemed like the perfect opportunity for the writers to fill in the blanks.
But while this mini-episode does tell us more about the Kelpiens, it’s not a whole lot, and what it does reveal is pretty clichéd and derivative. And yet, it’s still the first of the Short Treks that doesn’t feel completely disposable. A lot of effort was put into making Saru’s homeworld feel real and tangible and not just created on a computer, and there are plenty of strikingly composed shots to be found here. So at least from a visual perspective, “The Brightest Star” is much more cinematic than most of what we’ve seen on Discovery so far.
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As for the plot, it doesn’t really break any new ground for Star Trek. There are strong echoes of the original series’ “A Taste of Armageddon” and Voyager’s “Emanations”, but what the story really calls to mind is the Next Generation episode “Pen Pals”, where Data inadvertently communicates with a girl from a pre-warp society, which leads to the Enterprise bending the Prime Directive to save her species. You can think of “The Brightest Star” as essentially the alien-oriented flip-side of “Pen Pals”.
We open on the Kelpien homeworld, named Kaminar, and a voiceover from Saru himself as we see that the Kelpien race is at a primitive level of existence, living off the land in small villages made up of wigwam-like huts. Saru and the other villagers stand in the water, fishing for seaweed, and despite his voiceover starting with “When I was a boy…”, Saru looks exactly the same as he did last season.
Apparently, when Saru was a boy, he used to look up at the sky and see “hope”, even though his people were raised to look up and see “death”, and also “welcome it”.
That night, he witnesses the “harvest”, wherein members of his race are selected to be “taken”, which stops the “pain of Vahar’ai” and “preserves the Great Balance of Kaminar”. He watches as a group of Kelpiens are led to shore by a man in a white hooded robe, where they all kneel in a circle around an obelisk. A bright light emanates from the obelisk, the ground shakes, and everyone in the circle (other than the guy in the robe) disappears.
The man in the white robe walks away, and he turns out to be Saru’s father. He comes home and informs Saru and his sister Siranna that during the ceremony, he found a black, rectangular object that “fell off the Ba’ul ship”, meaning the obelisk. As they sit down to eat, Saru’s dad orders him to “dispose” of the object later, because to possess it is “forbidden”. If it’s so forbidden, why didn’t he just destroy the thing where he found it instead of bringing it home?
But given what we’ve been previously told about Kelpiens, it’s clear this “harvest” is less about ascending to Valhalla and/or Vahar’ai and more about the Kelpiens being consumed by a superior race. Saru appears to be the only one of his people to question this tradition as well as his society’s religious beliefs. He asks what’s out there above the sky, and is informed by his father that the skies are ruled by the “Watchful Eye”. Also known as CBS! Saru wonders if there are other species out there, and if it’s possible to contact them, which is definitely not foreshadowing of any kind.
As you’d expect, the Old Man just scoffs at this. He angrily asserts that the Great Balance must not be disturbed, and the Ba’ul must be “sustained”, and Saru shouldn’t question it, because that’s Just the Way Things Are.
Later that night, Saru sneaks that forbidden object into his room, and opens it up and starts pulling out different bits of technology, including what looks like a PADD. According to his voiceover, he used it to “send out a message”, and then carried on with his life for a couple of days waiting for a reply.
And then the device bleeps and bloops, indicating that someone has responded. Saru takes it out and sees the word “HELLO”… in English? Or maybe Ba’ulese just looks really, really similar to English.
Later over dinner, Saru wonders if it’s possible that he might be chosen for the next harvest. His dad says if that happens, it’s God’s will, or rather, the will of the Watchful Eye. Saru is evidently not too reassured by this answer, because we next find him at the shoreline, staring up at the obelisk, and his voiceover says he wasn’t content with simply waiting around to be “taken”. I have to say, this is pretty damn redundant narration. Like, do we really need to hear Saru say, “I sent out a message,” as we watch Saru send out a message? I think this short would have been perfectly understandable without the voiceover.
In his room, Saru writes out the word “TODAY” using pen and ink, and it seems the same word is also on his Nokia tablet. Does this mean he’s figured out the language and is sending back “TODAY” as a reply, or is this another message he just received?
At dusk, he and his sister are traveling far away from his village. He tells Siranna to head back without him, because he wants to watch the stars for a while. He gives her a tender farewell that should really be a red flag to her that something’s up. Regardless, she leaves and Saru sits alone in the dark, waiting.
Eventually, a small spacecraft appears and lands in front of him. It’s a Starfleet shuttle, as you likely guessed, and out pops Michelle Yeoh in a surprise cameo. She’s prime universe Philippa Georgiou here, not Mirror Georgiou, and at this point in time she’s still a Lieutenant. She uses her communicator as a universal translator, and expresses amazement at how Saru was able to contact them using technology stolen from the Ba’ul. She says he’s the first Kelpien to ever use technology in this way, which is “extraordinary”.
She wants to take him away from all this, but warns that her people have lots of rules when it comes to contacting pre-warp civilizations. So if he decides to go with her, he can never return. She asks if he’s prepared for that, and he gives his village one last look and says he’s ready. To the sound of the TOS fanfare, they board the shuttle, and Saru’s voice says this is how he found “hope” in the stars instead of fear.
Siranna stands at the door of her hut and watches the shuttle warp away. Nothing like revealing your spacefaring technology to a pre-industrial species, is there? To be fair, this is far from the first time this has happened in the Star Trek franchise. Hell, it’s not even the first time it’s happened on Discovery; the Shenzhou materialized in full view of a pre-warp civilization in the pilot.
And that’s the end. Like I said, there was nothing groundbreaking or particularly original here, but it’s entertaining enough and certainly nice to look at. And it helps that the episode ended before it had the chance to raise a lot more questions it wasn’t interested in answering.
Still, when Saru explained in the previous season that his species was raised to be prey, I wasn’t really visualizing that the predator species was some unseen overlord taking advantage of a weaker species under the guise of religion. Presumably, the Ba’ul want the Kelpiens to voluntarily sacrifice themselves for food, but this seems more like a factory farming situation than predator/prey. And if this is indeed the case, how would Kelpiens evolve to have that “threat ganglia” we’re always seeing, if being “preyed upon” for them consists of calmly and willingly standing in a circle and waiting to be transported away?
Also, it’s a bit weird that Saru is the very first Kelpien in Starfleet, and the very first to master any sort of technology at all, and yet this bit of backstory was never brought up before. It’d be like if one day they thawed out a Cro-Magnon who ended up serving aboard a Navy vessel and it never came up in conversation.
And the whole idea of Starfleet deliberately seeking out a member of a pre-warp species and taking them away from their homeworld kind of confuses me. Do all members of pre-warp societies get whisked away when they contact the Federation, or just the ones that prove to be “extraordinary”? And for that matter, what does Starfleet think about the relationship between the Kelpiens and the Ba’ul? Assuming the Ba’ul are a warp-capable species, wouldn’t Starfleet have some sort of duty to end their exploitation of a less advanced race?
But according to comments made by the producers and cast in interviews, Saru will be returning to his home planet in the upcoming season, so maybe some of these questions will be answered in the near future.
Next time on Short Treks: Rainn Wilson’s Harry Mudd returns in “The Escape Artist”, taking place during the time he was being held captive by the Klingons prior to meeting Lorca. And given the track record of “Harry Mudd episodes” across the entire Star Trek franchise, I think we know how this one’s going to turn out.